Sunday, 28 December 2014

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS - What's with the birds?

Corella Pear "8" x 6" Canvas Panel

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" to most is a delightful nonsense rhyme set to music, but it had a serious purpose when it was written. From 1558 to 1829, Catholics in England were prohibited from any practice of their faith, private or public. Certainly in the early days, to be caught with something indicating adherence to the Catholic faith would get you imprisoned, hanged, or shortened by a head. So, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was written to help young Catholics learn the tenets of their faith.

The words from this song first appeared in a book titled Mirth without Mischief which was published in 1780 (or 1783) in England. The tune dates back much further and has French origins. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is described as a "memory and forfeits game" played by children. The leader recited the first verse, the next child recited the second and so on until someone made a mistake and had to pay a penalty. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was popular at "12th-night parties"

It struck me while reading these lines, just how many of the symbols were birds. As I've painted many birds this year, I thought I would use them for illustration. Many are available via Daily Paintworks by clicking here.


The "true love" of the song refers to God Himself, the "me" refers to any follower of the "true" faith and each of the 12 "gifts" had hidden meaning.

1 The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In the song, Christ is symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, echoing Christ's sadness over the fate of Jerusalem:

"Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered thee under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so..."


2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed